Ellison didn’t know if the cult was watching him or not, so he followed the recommendation to go the King’s Arms and asked loud and detailed questions about the menu.
“What do you mean, you don’t have turkey legs?” he complained at the bar. “The Middle Ages were all about turkey legs.”
The bartender pointed to a sign on the wall behind him: “No coffee. No tea. No cigarettes. No potatoes. No turkeys. Ask us about our skirret and cabbage pie.”
“Fine. I’ll take the skirret and cabbage pie. What’s a skirret?”
“It’s like a potato, but skinny and stringy,” said the bartender, putting a mug of ale in front of Ellison. “Welcome to Krim.”
While he waited for the pie, Ellison opened the book with the Krim terms of service. There was a whole section on prohibited items. The founders really took the whole idea of being based on England around the year 1500 seriously. According to the book, turkeys didn’t arrive in England until 1526. Tobacco came in 1586, around the same time as potatoes and tomatoes. Tea, coffee and chocolate came in the 1600s.
If Ellison was ever held at gunpoint and forced to pick a historic era in which to live, the year 1500 was nowhere near the top of his list.
The book also had a section on Krim pre-history. Turned out, Qualdir was an official god of the early Krim pantheon, a few thousand years ago. His favorite snack was human hearts, eaten while they were still fresh and beating. There was no explanation, however, why his followers were considered to be members of a sex cult.
After the meal, Ellison killed a little more time wandering around the central plaza, asking about quests. He bought a cheap, dull sword and a map to an ancient hidden temple, then asked for directions to the docks.
He was a block away from the central plaza when someone bumped into him, put a wad of paper in his hand, and disappeared before Ellison could even get a look at them.
In case anyone was watching him, he sat down on a low stone wall in front of a nearby building, opened his rucksack and pulled out the treasure map. Then, using the map as cover, he unwadded the paper. Inside was a something that looked like a miniature sausage, stuffed inside a casing. Except instead of a sausage, it was a brown paste. The whole thing was about the size of a lima bean.
The attached note said, “Keep this in your mouth. If things go bad, chew through the casing and you’ll be dead instantly. Don’t swallow it whole.”
That didn’t bode well. But if Matilda lost track of him, and he was kidnapped, dying quickly of poison was probably preferable to being kept prisoner until the winter solstice and then having his heart ripped out of his chest. He wondered what the cult did with the hearts. Did they throw them into a volcano? Did someone come out dressed up like Qualdir and eat it? Or did all the cult members get to have a bite?
He put the poison capsule in his mouth and walked on.
The attack happened quickly and unexpectedly, just before he got to the docks.
Before he could even resist, he was pushed into an alley, and then someone dropped a large canvas sack over his head and shoulders. He tried to find back, and quickly found himself tied up. He couldn’t move his arms and legs, but he could scream, and did that until someone knocked him sharply on the head and told him to shut up.
He felt himself being lifted up and thrown into a cart or wagon of some kind. He tried to kick out, and was hit on the head again. He started yelling again. He wanted to make it as easy as possible for Matilda to follow them.
The wagon rolled for a few minutes, bumping Ellison painfully as it went over cobblestones, then it got darker inside the canvas sack. They must have brought him inside somewhere.
He screamed for help, trying not to swallow the poison capsule, as he was manhandled out of the wagon and dropped face down on the ground. Then someone took the sack off his head. It was dark. He could feel a carpet, or a rug, under his cheek. He turned his head to see who his captors were, but it was too dark to see much. He could just about make out two attackers, wearing hoods.
He could see their auras but didn’t recognize them from the community center. He hoped that he hadn’t been kidnapped by a different, unrelated group.
“What do you want?” he asked, and got a kick in his side in response.
“Shut up,” said one of the captors.
The other bent down by his head and tied a gag around his mouth, then pulled the sack back over his head.
Then Ellison was rolled up inside something. Probably the rug that they had dropped him on, and he was thrown back into another vehicle, or possibly the same one as before.
The next couple of hours were a claustrophobic nightmare as he was transported somewhere. He had thought that they would put him on a ship, since they were at the docks, but instead it felt like they’d be going overland.
At some point, Ellison fell asleep.
He woke up when he was lifted out and unrolled. He could tell immediately he wasn’t in Krim city anymore because the air smelled fresh and clean. He could hear horses neighing softly and the crackling of a fire.
His captors pulled the sack off his head and untied his gag, then pulled him to his feet.
There was a bright fire, with about a dozen people sitting around it. Several of the people had iron shackles on their ankles, connected by metal chains about a foot or so long.
They were hobbled, he realized, to keep them from running away. He didn’t recognize any of the other prisoners — except for one. Fulke was here.
Ellison looked around further. There was a circle of covered wagons surrounding them. Between the wagons, he could see nothing but empty fields. At least he still had his poison capsule, tucked inside his cheek.
“Anybody follow you?”
Ellison recognized the voice. It was Skullash, the cult leader he’d met at the Aldwich Row Community Center.
“No, we stopped and waited outside the city gates,” said one of Ellison’s captors. “Nobody came after us. And we kept an eye on the road behind us, and doubled back, like you told us to.”
“That’s good. Take him out to do his business,” Skullash said. “Then grab something to eat and get some sleep. You’ll be on watch after midnight, then we’re leaving first thing in the morning.”
Ellison moaned through his gag.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what you’re doing here, and who we are,” Skullash told him. “You’ll learn more later, but, for now, just know that you’re safe. You’re now part of a religious order. We’re humanitarians. It might not seem that way at first, but you’ll soon get to know us and understand that we are on a mission of peace.”
Dinner was porridge and skirrets served with no utensils. Eating was doubly awkward since the manacles on his wrists kept him from separating his hands by more than a few inches. He spit his poison capsule into his hand before he ate, so he wouldn’t swallow it accidentally, then scooped up the porridge with the fingers of his other hand.
Ellison had been seated on the far side of the fire from Fulke, who looked beaten and dejected. All the prisoners were.
“Don’t believe all the love and kindness crap,” the prisoner nearest Ellison on the right whispered to him. “You see that guy over there?” he glanced over at Fulke.
“That’s Fulke. He says we’ve been captured by some kind of sex cult. We’re all going to be sex slaves. There are a bunch of priestesses up in the mountains somewhere and we’re going to have to serve them, sexually.”
“Are they going to kill us?”
“Fulke says that they do one human sacrifice every year, and they’ve already got their sacrifice picked out.”
“Well, that’s something, at least.”
“Fulke wants to make a run for it.”
“Does he have a plan?”
“Not yet. And frankly, I’m not that into running. I mean, I thought Krim was going to be boring, and now look, here I am, about to become a sex slave. I’ve never been a sex slave in a human sacrifice cult before.”
“Why does Fulke looked so banged up?”
“He tried to kill himself. Said he had an appointment to get to.”
“And what happened?”
“He tried to brain himself with a rock and they caught him. They said that if he tries to kill himself again, they’ll take out an eye. Then the other eye. Then they’ll cut off a hand.”
Ellison shivered. He was glad now that he had the poison.
“Then they cut off the other hand. Then a foot. Then the other foot. Then…”
“I got it, I got it,” Ellison interrupted. He didn’t want to know what they would cut off next.
He put the poison capsule back into his mouth again without his guards noticing. He didn’t want to eat the poison just yet, on the off chance that Matilda might still find him, but it looked like he was going to have to use it soon. But then, Fulke would still be a prisoner here.
Maybe he and Fulke could spit the pill?
Ellison finished the last of his porridge and was about to set the plate down when one of the captors pointed at him.
Ellison paused. “What?”
“Bring the plate over here and grab a bedroll. That goes for all of you. You’ll be sleeping out by the fire tonight. We’ll be keeping watch on you, so don’t try anything.”
Ellison stood up and started hobbling in the indicated direction when his foot sank down into a small hole and he topped over, unable to catch himself before he fell because of the chains on his wrists and ankles.
He fell across the lap of the man next to him, the impact expelling the poison capsule from his mouth and sending it straight into the fire.